Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Useless Circle

I've never quite understood the point of the traffic circle at the south end of the 6th Street Viaduct.

A waste of space

It's a vast space, designed to regulate traffic between the moderately busy 6th Street (an important surface connection between downtown and south city) and... a few unremarkable side streets. And that's it.

To accomplish this pedestrian feat, it devours an entire city block's worth of land:

Milwaukee Traffic Circle

Now maybe there's something going on underground that I'm not aware of, sewer lines or utilities or unstable soils or sacred Indian burial grounds, but it sure seems to me like 6th Street could've just continued straight off the viaduct.

I've likewise never understood people's fascination with traffic circles. In my experience (mostly in New Jersey), they're difficult to navigate, and harrowing for a first-time traveller. There's no way of knowing what lane you need to be in till you're already past where you wanted to go, and your circular path makes it that much harder to check behind you for someone in the lane to your right.

More to the point, the 6th Street roundabout was completely unnecessary. None of the other streets at this intersection have even moderate volumes of traffic. They could have been terminated with stop signs with no impact on traffic flow. 6th Street only get really busy at rush hour, as downtown workers use it as a longcut to the Interstate a few blocks south. It provides a very poor termination to a bridge that otherwise is all about making connections: downtown to the Menomonee Valley to the south side.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation cites a study claiming that roundabouts reduce pedestrian-vehicle accidents. Well, gee, ya don't think that could maybe be because nobody in their right mind would cross this thing on foot?! Seriously. The cold hard fact is, the Menomonee Valley is over half a mile across, and even with the beautiful new 6th Street Bridge, it's a long, lonely walk from downtown to the south side. Not many people take it on, even on the nicest of days.

This might not seem worth quibbling over, but the useless circle is taking up an entire city block on the edge of one of the most urban areas of the city. That's a block that should have buildings on it, not grass and concrete. Contrary to what traffic engineers might have you believe, there are more important things than moving traffic swiftly through town, and not sacrificing entire city blocks to auto traffic is one of them.

6 comments:

Nuclear art said...

Roundabouts take space, that's a fact. Yet you can go in any European city and find them in the center of town. In Madrid, where I lived for several months, there were many, much larger ones in busy CBDs. This is in cities where space is at a much bigger premium than here in Milwaukee.

They are much safer for pedestrians and cars. Nothing will ever beat them for the safety factor. But roundabouts or any other engineered traffic control cannot keep a pedestrian or other driver 100% safe from harm. There are always drivers that disregard the laws. There already is a state law that mandates drivers to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. The fine is a minimum of $20. If any injury is sustained by the pedestrian, then that figure is going to a fuck of a lot higher especially when that pedestrian files a lawsuit against the driver.

You seem to misunderstand the full reasons for a roundabout which is understandable. I'll do my duty as a traffic engineer and explain it in a little more detail. Let's look at one of the worst intersections for accidents in the county, HWY 100 and Greenfield. This is a big intersection, probably with dedicated turn lanes on all corners it is a similar size as that of 6th and Virginia. But HWY 100 has a speed limit of 40mph and Greenfield has a speed limit of 35mph. When a car gets t-boned there it can be a fatality. All it takes is an idiot disregarding the laws. The most dangerous maneuver in any intersection is a left turn. Most accidents are a result of left turns at intersections. I can also tell you that it is a scary thing for a pedestrian to cross there, even with a walk light. I've done that many times.

Roundabouts, OTOH, are designed so that when a car enters into the circle it is going at less than 20mph and at an angle which is not very deadly. When the roundabout is running at capacity, speeds will be much lower. I can't cite any statistics offhand but I don't believe that roundabouts have had any fatalities or near-deadly collisions. As with any traffic control device, they do require the drivers to obey the laws in able for them to work properly. Yield is the biggest law which is taught in all driver ed classes. Yield to pedestrians and yield to other cars already in the roundabout.

Also in a standard intersection there are a huge number of zones for potential collisions whereas the roundabout does reduce that number from 32 to 8. That gives the driver less things to worry about. One or two times though a simple roundabout is all that it takes to more easily naviagte them than a traditional signalized intersection. I can honestly say that once you become more familiar with a roundabout it is much easier to pass through than any other type of control.

p.s. you've got to drive more people to your blog. There is some good stuff here that needs to be discussed.

Anonymous said...

I'd say a good 4 times out of 5 the people who are supposed to yield do not. It's true, most people will be going at a slower speed, but the cars heading south on 6th are going fast - maybe coming down a little bit from the 35-40 mph that they're accustomed to on that stretch. It sucks.

Nuclear Art said...

Anonymous, yeah, most drivers on city streets are going faster than 10mph over the posted speed limit. South 6th is no exception. Too many people don't know how to read a sign that says Speed Limit 30MPH. But a driver can't enter a roundabout at 40mph and stay on 4 wheels unless they have a high performance race car and even then I doubt they would be able to maintain control. I've gone fast entering a roundabout on a motorcycle but it is a tricky maneuver and I've never tried it faster than 30mph.

Anonymous said...

I grew up there on 6th and virginia and at that time 6th street was a one way street as soon as the viaduct ended. you had to be on 5th street in order to get on to go downtown-- I believe at that time the roundabout would have been important and its probably a bit costly to change it now if it really dont need to be changed-- just my opinion

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